Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have further distinguished themselves through their deep involvement in tennis politics. Stars of the 60s and early 70s like Arthur Ashe were very politically active, but they tried to revolutionize the game. As tennis money boomed, top players tended to focus on their careers. The Big Three are throwbacks to that earlier era. Federer was chairman of the ATP players’ council from 2008 to 2014, and Nadal served on the council for four of those years. Djokovic was elected president in 2016. Now that they are nearing the end of their careers, they seem determined to wield as much influence over how the game is run as they do over how it is played, creating another field of battle in their rivalry.
The first sign of discord came two years ago, when Djokovic was part of the faction that ousted Kermode from his ATP presidency. Federer and Nadal opposed this decision and soon after joined the players’ council, which was still led by Djokovic. By all accounts, the atmosphere of the meetings was cordial, but the three men were guided by very different impulses. Federer and Nadal were institutionalists by nature, pro-ATP and generally happy with how tennis worked. Djokovic, meanwhile, believed drastic reform was needed, starting with independent player representation.
Even so, with Federer and Nadal back on the board and the question of prize money once again plaguing the tour, it was thought the Big Three could return to the role they played in 2012 and 2013 and strike another deal with the majors. When I asked Pospisil what he thought about it, he said he was in favor of anything that would give players a fairer share. But he went on to say that price negotiation is best left to lawyers and that tennis needs to move away from ad hoc behind-the-scenes deals. He also wondered if Federer would be willing to take a tough line with the majors. He noted that the Swiss star and his management company were behind the Laver Cup, an annual team competition. Tennis Australia, which runs the Australian Open, and the USTA were both investors in the event, which meant Federer was now in business with two of the four majors. Pospisil insisted he was not questioning Federer’s integrity – ‘I have incredible respect for Roger, both as a player and as a human being’ – but said that the players needed an unambiguous advocate on their side. “We cannot let anyone negotiate prize money on behalf of players who have a conflict of interest,” he said. (Federer did not respond to a request for comment.)
Either way, any hope there was that the Big Three would forge a united front was dashed when Djokovic and Pospisil announced the formation of the PTPA on the eve of last year’s US Open. “The Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA) did not appear to be combative, disruptive or cause any problems inside or outside of the tennis tour,” Pospisil tweeted. “Just to unify the players, make our voices heard and have an impact on the decision-making for this purpose [sic] our lives and livelihoods. To mark the occasion, Pospisil and Djokovic, as well as nearly a hundred other players, found themselves on a court at the National Tennis Center for a group photo. The majors, along with the ATP and WTA, released a statement condemning the move. “This is a time for even greater collaboration, not for division,” they said. On the same day, Federer and Nadal circulated a letter, signed by them and several other players’ council members, which read: “We are against this proposal because we do not see how it really benefits the players and it puts our lives on the Tour and safety in major doubt. By then, Djokovic and Pospisil had both resigned from the board.
A former ATP executive recently told me that Djokovic’s actions were at least partly rooted in his rivalry with Federer and Nadal – the fact that he was always presented as the odd one out, the third man, the villain. The person, who asked to remain anonymous as he is on good terms with all three players, said being the guy everyone is rooting against has toughened Djokovic to criticism and encouraged him to follow his own. path. “Novak has a habit of pushing things up hill,” he said. “To find yourself in front of a stadium of 16,000 people at Wimbledon or Paris when everyone is screaming for Rafa or Roger and the whole world is against you and you kick their ass – Novak doesn’t care [expletive].” The former ATP officer said Djokovic was driven by a sincere desire to help other competitors, but the PTPA was also a “legacy”, another way to cement his place in history. It was also a way to assert his leadership in the dressing room – to signal that he, and not Federer or Nadal, was now the most powerful figure in the sport. The executive suggested that this was a message as much to his two rivals as to anyone else. “Some of it is personal,” he said.
In a recent email exchange, I asked Djokovic if he thought Federer and Nadal could be persuaded to support the PTPA “Roger and Rafa are both great competitors, and I respect their individual opinions,” replied Djokovic, adding that he hopes his rivals will. “Keep an open mind about the PTPA movement.”
It’s not the first time players filed for divorce from the ATP In 2003, a group led by Wayne Ferreira of South Africa and Laurence Tieleman of Italy and Belgium created a player-only organization called International Men’s Tennis Association, or the IMTA He was born out of the same grievances that drive the PTPA: frustration over money and dissatisfaction with the ATP “There have been a lot of issues with how the ATP handles things,” Tieleman told the Los Angeles Times. A number of players, including Lleyton Hewitt, ranked No. 1 at the time, expressed their support. But IMTA never gained popularity. Players were unable to unite around a strategy, nor did they want to inject the resources needed to continue the effort.